Ethnography & Narrative Observation

Adam Williams – Geog 5161
Ethnography and Narrative Observation
Greek: ethno- meaning race, people
-graphia meaning writing or representation
Creswell (2009, 13) defines ethnography as ‘a strategy of inquiry in which the
researcher studies an intact cultural group in a natural setting over a prolonged
period of time by collecting, primarily, observational and interview data. The
research process is flexible and typically evolves contextually in response to the
lived realities encountered in the field setting.’ (LeCompte & Schensul, 1999)
Ethnography is a fundamentally qualitative research tool. The most basic scenario
for conducting ethnography involves:
1. Choosing a place for investigation. ‘Place’ can be more than a physical
2. Asking a research question.
3. Finding respondents.
4. Recording data.
Ethnography often includes:
 Direct observation of behavior—participant observation.
 Interviews, conversations, socializing
 Historical research, genealogical histories, mythologies
 Consultants, informants, friends
 Extended time ‘in the field’
 Narrative construction
Ethnography has roots in imperialism, with formal and historical connections to
travel writing and colonial reports. It tends to be ‘extractive,’ treating people as
having situated knowledge that the ethnographer attempts to glean from immersion
in their locale. Critical ethnography can be considered as a perspective that
challenges these problems. It’s also important to consider:
 virtues – generosity, humanity, honesty
 skills – observation, precision,
 construction of self—objectivity, subjectivity
Theories associated with ethnography:
Anthony Giddens advanced structuration theory in 1984. It is a way of studying
how structure and agency are the same: cultural structures are never finished, and
people’s everyday behavior influences culture, which in turn continues to alter itself.
Can ethnography be post-structural?
Jacques Derrida has argued that any theory of the social is also a theory of writing.
Ethnography has a written component that is interpretive.
Constructivism defines human knowledge as a process of learning by doing and
being. Ethnographers bring their own history, background and systems of
perception to the field.
Culture and experience may be considered in relativist terms—truth and reality are
not absolutes, but are influenced by one’s life, experience, society, etc.
Ethnography is often used as a way of retelling participants’ stories. Structural
devices can be employed, such as plot, setting, activities, climax, denouement, etc.
Exploring a literature background and history can be helpful tools for building the
research questions that promote critical ethnography.
Ethnography is also a narrative of self. One way to address this is by the inclusion of
statements detailing the researcher’s past experiences. Exploring connections
between the researcher and the participants and research sites can be another way
to enrich the narrative-of-self component of ethnography. One seminal example of
this is Clifford Geertz’s ‘Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight.’
Importance of travel:
Is ethnography most successful when it places the researcher outside his or her
‘home turf’ ?
Adam Williams – Geog 5161
Sources that outline or analyze ethnographic methods:
Brown, Stephen and Dobrin, Sidney. 2004. Ethnography Unbound: From Theory
Shock to Critical Praxis. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Cloke, Paul et al. 2004. Practising Human Geography. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Clough, Patricia. 1998. The Ends of Ethnography. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Creswell, John. 2009. Research Design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods
approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Creswell, John. 2007. Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five
approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Denzin, Norman. 1997. Interpretive Ethnography: Ethnographic Practices for the 21st
Century. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York, NY:
Basic Books.
Hay, Iain. 2005. Qualitative Research Methods in Human Geography. Melbourne, AU:
Oxford University Press.
Mauss, Marcel. 1967. Manual of Ethnography. France: Durkheim Press.
Machin, David. 2002. Ethnographic research for media studies. New York, NY: Oxford
University Press.
Montello, Daniel and Sutton, Paul. 2006. An Introduction to Scientific Research
Methods in Geography. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Troman, Geoff, Jeffrey, Bob, and Walford, Geoffrey, eds. 2005. Methodological issues
and practices in ethnography. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Ltd.